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Would Streetwear Really Be As Popular Without Hip Hop?

Jo KwokYee Lee
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history of streetwear hip hop supreme

The history of streetwear and Hip Hop grew to new levels in the early 90s with the era giving birth to some of the biggest streetwear brands to date.

Streetwear has a long history with Hip Hop culture going all the way back to the early 80s when adidas track suits, boom boxes and crews spinning around on their heads took over the streets of the Bronx. It wasn’t really until the early 90s that the streetwear scene started as we know it today. Being one of the OG skate/streetwear brands, Supreme sets a perfect example of the remarkable evolution – from a cult skate brand founded in NYC to a top-notch streetwear giant that is almost a religion on its own, Supreme, along with many brands, have come a long way. We at RC can’t help but wonder, what has kept streetwear alive and vibrant this whole time? We won’t say for sure this is the sole factor but Hip Hop has definitely played, and is still playing, a momentous role. And here we are going to explore how Hip Hop goes hand in hand with streetwear.

history of streetwear hip hop supreme store 1994

Above: The history of streetwear and the Hip Hop connection is largely owed to brands like Supreme.

To thoroughly investigate how important Hip Hop is in moulding the history of streetwear is complex, so we decided to divide the subject into two levels – first, how Hip Hop makes an impact on what people wear and second, how the history of Hip Hop has influenced streetwear culture.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that Hip Hop DID NOT start the streetwear movement. The birth of streetwear was probably around 40 years ago (Comme des Garcons was established in 1973), but the influence of Hip Hop really goes back to the original B-boy era of the 1980s. It’s certainly not an overstatement to say the 90s was when streetwear really started to hit new levels, because a lot of revered brands that continue to shine today were founded around that time; Bape in 1993, Supreme in 1994… The list goes on.

Above: Biggie Smalls & Pharrell Williams showing their love for A Bathing Ape which started in 1993.

But like we said, they were nothing major back then. In fact, A Bathing Ape was a brand that was mostly only recognised in Japan. Yet we want to highlight Bape for the reason that it has always aligned itself with Hip Hop culture, oversized hoodies, baggy jeans, snapbacks… And really it gave every reason for East Coast Hip Hop artists like Biggie Smalls every reason in the world to cop it. Celebrities of course brought about greater publicity that raised the brand’s international profile. In the noughties, Pharrell Williams went on to become the full-on ambassador for Bape and worked ever so closely with founder NIGO. Before you had the time to take a second peek Bape had opened its own department store in NYC, and soon further flagship stores all over the globe.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that Hip Hop DID NOT start the streetwear movement.

Jo Kwok Yee Lee, RC Magazine

Bape is a classic example of how Hip Hop influenced what the population wore. This specific population defined streetwear because the nature of Hip Hop has always been on the streets or underground. It is the kind of down-to-earth music that youth listens to. Celebrity endorsement has certainly contributed to the moulding of the streetwear cult.

Not only have Hip Hop artists endorsed and represented certain brands, but they have also taken on an active and proactive role in terms of building streetwear. Some fashion aficionados suggested that Hip Hop artists in the 90s, such as Killa Cam, seemed to have influenced the mindset of streetwear designers and creators, whereas rappers in the noughties and in the recent decade have merely affected consumers’ habit. We agree and disagree because if you look close enough, a lot of major Hip Hop movements now are leading streetwear to move forward.

history of streetwear hip hop kanye west yeezy

Above: Kanye West has become a key player on the global streetwear scene with YEEZY.

Let’s discuss the rappers who have started their own fashion labels, such as Kanye West who’s buddied up with adidas and Nike for the Yeezy collections. Yes these collections inherited the traditional traits of streetwear, like a copious use of camo on hoodies, T-shirts and whatnot, but what about the expertise of technology that was injected into the creative process? Five years ago adidas released a shoe-cushioning technology ‘Boost’ that promised to deliver a better sneaker-wearing experience. West has widely incorporated this technology in a multitude of his footwear model, such as Ultraboost. This prompted the mindset that streetwear is not just about ‘getting the looks’ anymore but achieving a mixture of style and comfort.

And the fact that the boundary between streetwear and premium fashion has blurred? Hip Hop might have something to do with it as well. A$AP Rocky and his crew were some of the most notable pioneers in mixing streetwear and high fashion. Rocky has matched Dior jackets with Nike Air Force 1’s, Fila T-shirts with Prada trousers… These mix-and-matches are not uncommon now, are they? Streetwear has moved forward from just being a cult on the streets to masterpieces in world-class runway shows, coupling with some of the most renowned, historic fashion labels.

history of streetwear hip hop asap rocky

Above: A$AP Rocky showing off some of his premium streetwear pieces from brands like Balenciaga.

Rappers seem to have become royalties in streetwear now as they continue to create trends and lead the wave. This is not to suggest that streetwear would completely fall apart without the support from rappers, but they do act as accelerators of trend growth and they are irreplaceable, albeit rather arguably. So to answer our question, would the history of streetwear be the same  without the Hip Hop connection? Probably not.

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Jo KwokYee Lee
Jo KwokYee Lee

Jo is a Hong Kong-native and a graduate in MA International Journalism at Cardiff University. She is a big sneakerhead who always keeps an eye on new trainer drops. Previously interned at other streetwear magazines, she is excited to talk about modern street fashion, music and youth culture on RC. Jo's favourite brands at the moment are Vans, Stüssy, Nike and Anti Social Social Club.

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